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Obscurity, The Twenty-First Chapter
In which the widow is haunted by her past—and a protection spell must be put into place.
We last read The Twentieth Chapter, in which we met the businessman once again, and the philanthropist was haunted by his past.
For those who desire decadence in their lives, the swamp is a beautiful place to find it. There the reeds and grasses draw up to the land and the water seeps between them. When stepping barefoot into the mire, one can feel the wind gently lulling against the skin, the air so thick it holds one still against it, the mangroves so heavy they weep their branches into it.
In the swamp, the insects sing a suspended tune, a sound not dissimilar to the call of a canter, their melody echoing into a nave of nature’s making. In that nave, more sinister beings dwell, though they keep to themselves so long as they are left unprovoked. In the stillness, eyes blink above the water, hardly discernible from the mud that permeates around them. These creatures find in the mud the decadence they long for. For in the swamp, the rich earth cakes into the skin, a salve for all that ails it.
It was to just such a swamp that the ménagère turned at night. For while she healed from her illness, she waded out into Bayou St. John, allowing the swamp to seep into the recesses of her skin. With naught but her chemise draping her body, she walked into the waters, wetting the white cloth until it clung to her. She massaged the mud into her arms and down her legs, allowing it to soothe every crevice of her body and every ache in her spirit.
Sometimes she would sing—her voice sweet against the sticky air that heard it, the lurking things listening to her hum—others she would undress and lay amidst the reeds to feel the waters lap up against her skin, intimate in its embrace. The water caressed her tenderly as she lay at its edge, her mind longing for the moment it would reach her, touching her gently as it seeped slowly up her thighs, and into her belly button, until at last it languished at her breasts.
Sometimes, another would join her, he would wade into the waters without his boots, sink his bare feet into that wettened earth and reach his waterlogged fingers toward that saturated woman. The waters would soothe them. There was nothing so serene as the trembling wake that lapped against the skin and the wind that breathed gently upon them.
The water touched them inside and out, and so did the wind, stirring their bodies with the healing ecstasy of the earth and the sky. Every sensation simmering with the gentle release of a slow boiling pot, the taste of the fresh herbs that drift within it settling upon their senses. Their scent of sweet moss in their nostrils, the taste of jasmine on their lips. Every pore awakened to the feeling of the water. And the wind. And one another.
The captain touched the ménagère where her wounds healed. Where the small marks on her neck remembered the poison that once coursed through it. Once she had appeared at the brink of death, now it appeared death had not touched her at all, and the captain marveled at so intricate a healing. That it could even exist at all was like the origin of life itself, hauntingly mysterious. He shivered as he touched the veins that ran up her arms, their dark course intertwining toward her heart—that vessel that kept her alive somehow separate from the power that had kept her from death.
She saw him wondering. In the waters of the swamp, the captain and the ménagère touched one another with the ease of the trees, their movements swaying within the underwater reeds, who dipped their toes into the water, their souls soaring like the birds that flew free from them, floating on the sky in alternating arcs of slowness and speed. The lullaby sung by nature echoed in their minds as their bodies collided, strands of kelps encircling their thighs as they touched one another and were touched in turn by the swamp.
Even the sound of the leaves mirrored the sighs of their lips. The wind falling from them in moans of mercy as they whispered their secrets with one another, shaking spirits from their hair and loosening their leaves into the waters. The water had a sparkling sound as the dew fell into it, and it glistened with magic. The waves were warmest where they drew near to the sun and their bodies bathed in them, the waters of their love mingling with the waters of the bayou, forming a medicine of the purest kind.
And yet, as the water held them in her comforting embrace, so too did another’s touch. The captain and the ménagère had thought themselves alone and so turned to face the one who’s fingers reached them and there found that hand attached to the most beautiful woman, with long blonde hair spiraling out into the waters in tendrils of seaweed, her corpse pale and perfect, bobbing up from the bowels of the swamp.
The child tossed and turned; his mind gripped by nightmare.
The dreams came unbidden, violent enough to cause his small body to tremble, but not violent enough that those trembles would wake him. Trapped in the artistic leanings of his mind, he peered out the window of his room, seeing the moon hung so brightly above him. It was beautiful, and he looked upon it with awe. Its glow was otherworldly, a halo crowning the night sky. Were it not so bright, he would have been unable to see anything else. But it illuminated the night sky around it and appeared to come alive.
At first the stars began to bounce, until one by one, their light dimmed and went out. Then the darkness appeared like the waves of an ocean, roiling in their fury, ready to upend any ship that should travel upon them. Indeed, now that the boy looked more closely, there was a ship, sailing upon that night sky toward that light which guided it. It seemed to sail on a cloud more sinister than most—its dark waves containing every manner of demons.
Serpents and sea dragons fell from the ship’s wake, drowning in their own currents as their wasted bodies reached toward that great light. They wailed at the light they could not reach and became blinded by the light they could not see. They fell into whirlpools of despair, the darkness swirling around them as the ship left them to drown. The child watched with growing anxiety as the ship neared the moon. For a moment it appeared to obscure it, but then the moon could be seen once more, and the child drew a steadying breath.
The wave upon which the ship sailed grew darker and more threatening, the wind more howling. Serpents squealed with wretched breath as the sails were filled. The ship sped toward the crest of the moon and when it reached it, the light touched the bow, and that’s when child saw him. The phantom stood at the helm, his cloak fluttering in that unruly wind and where the light touched his face the child saw upon it that gruesome gash. The child screamed to warn the moon, but his small voice could not be heard against the giant howling of the wind.
He watched in horror as the darkness consumed the moon, those demons delighting in their harvest. A shudder drew near him, until at last he knew what he could do. The child jumped from his window, landing in the night sky with a soft splash. He swam against the cloud currents as the serpents writhed within them, scales of silver brushing against his legs as he propelled himself away from them. They continued toward the moon as the child swam among them.
At last, just as the phantom prepared to strike, the boy took advantage of the one gift he had been given: the knowledge that it was all a dream. He stirred up the depths of the sea, watching the clouds twirl around him in a whirlpool of darkness. One by one, the demons fell into it. Their wails fearful of the darkness into which they would once again descend. At last, the whirlpool grew so large that it swallowed up the entirety of the sea, and with it, the ship upon which the phantom stood. It fell into the abyss and was gone.
The moon remained bright and beautiful, her light holding the child that saved it on rays of pure gold.
And then he awoke.
The ménagère held the child in her arms, the remnants of his dream slipping in through her fingertips. The dream felt visceral and dense, like an oil painting laden with thick swaths of paint. Overcast blacks and blues were painted in menacing tones, each brushstroke betraying the violent proclivities of the artist. Like a storm cloud, the images cast a shadow on the child’s mind, threatening to consume him.
But the ménagère would not allow evil to near him. After he had fallen asleep, but before he could fall back into dreams, the ménagère laid the child upon his bed and drifted down the stairs and out into the marsh, a woven basket held tightly in her hands and a linen shawl draped about her shoulders. Her dress was of a muslin fabric, its hem rustling against the reeds. The crickets so loud there was no silence.
Calling upon her mother, the two sang into that lonesome tune a harmony sung adrift in the swamp, with words that hung opaquely against a silent sky. She gathered fronds and herbs that grew wild. When she returned from the marsh, her dress was wettened at the edges, leaving a trail of mud upon the wooden banquets. The cabaret was lonesome, only a few men talking over digestifs as she slipped past the door unnoticed and continued up the stairs to the widow’s residence above.
The apartment was dark, the floorboards creaking as she walked upon them. The widow designed the rooms with all the elegance of the plantation, dark portraits watching from the walls, their gilded frames shimmering in the night. Arched cast iron windows adorned with heavy black shutters looked into a courtyard spilling over with ferns, a lone gas lamp casting a wavering glow against the brick. There was no moon that evening, the world having obscured it with its shadow.
For a moment, the ménagère wondered if the phantom stood among those shadows. If he looked upon her face, visible from the candle she held in her hand as he remained concealed amid the ferns. She shuddered to think of the darkened face, touched as it was by the underworld. His tortured mind twisting with the vile appetite of a murderous snake. For a moment she could almost sense the illness of that mind. The lustful craving it had for her mistress. The longing it had to harm her. The blood slipping from his lips in anticipation of his next victim.
Visions flickered in and out until she could no longer ascertain the reality of them. Turning away from the courtyard, she found the widow standing before her, hardly discernible from the darkness were her dress not of a more luminescent sheen. Yards of skirts cut to the floor in a dramatic figure, strands of pearls cascading from her neck, exposing the gentle whiteness of her skin, so delicate, a kiss marked that neck, blood trailing from it onto the front of her gown.
The ménagère breathed. A bead of sweat slipped between her breasts, the warmth suffocating her as she tried to ascertain the reality of her visions. Then a pair of white hands reached toward her into the darkness. The sweat slid from her breasts into the bodice of her gown as those ghostly hands encircled her, gripping her neck, digging into the place where she had had swallowed the poison until she screamed out in anguish, the vision evaporating before her into the dark.
She shivered despite the heat—the sweat now settling into her dress as a cool breeze fell upon her. She shook herself of her visions, pouring a pitcher of water into a wash basin and using her hands to pat it into her skin before she continued with her task, protecting her home and those whose souls dwelt within it.
She built a fire in the stove and set a pot to boil, placing within it the water from the swamp, and the fronds and herbs she had found there, adding strong spirits to fortify her intentions. While she waited for the water to tumble, she set a pot of red ink and a piece of parchment upon the table. There she etched her thoughts and prayers onto the page, the ink forming in spiraled threads of Creole and French, a rhythmic blend of words woven from the ones her mother told her, the ones the boy knew from his own mother, and the Catholic prayers of her mistress and her mistress’ lover.
She placed the parchment in the pot as the water simmered, watching the words to dissolve from the page and into spirits, turning the waters red with the ink.
Using a wooden spoon, she added eight eggs, allowing them to bathe in the protective waters for a period of minutes until their yolks had hardened and their whites had clotted. When the night left and the dawn drew up behind it, she prepared the eggs with collard greens and served them to the members of the household for breakfast.
The mistress and her lover were unaware of the evening’s ills, and the child was now free of his dreams. They ate their eggs in silence, without a thought to their preparation, only the slightest hint of red ink discernable amidst their yolks—protecting them from a haunting they did not see, but could feel nonetheless.
We next read The Twenty-Second Chapter, in which we meet the second of the Maries.